Out West, where fads form and spirits are free-wheeling, the vehicle that your plumber and florist drive has been gussied up in shag, suede and paneling and rocks with quadraphonic sound
March 15, 1976

Here they come up Van Nuys, past Otto's Pink Pig and Bob's Big Boy, past Guerrero 24-Hour Bail Bonds and the cyclists outside the Copper Penny—hundreds of wildly modified vehicles of every pedigree and alias. There are '56 metal-flaked Chevys riding so low you couldn't slide a pack of Luckies under the rocker panel, BMW Bavarians with ghost-flame paint jobs and side pipes, raked Toyota mini-pickups with wide slicks, dune buggies sprouting CB antennas and flared skirts, a sprinkling of perfect '32 Fords, a woodie or two and, of course, the vans. One can almost hear the Beach Boys singing, "...we'll have fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird away." But it is the vans, whose high profiles rise above the more conventional vehicles like icebergs, that provide something new—that are perhaps bizarre indicators of what we are and where we're going.

Wednesday night on Van Nuys is club night, show-off night for the under-25 set of Nam vets, high-schoolers, dropouts, tuned-ins and garden-variety crazies of Los Angeles. The vans carry names like Inversion, Vandal, Sundance, No Big Thing, Phantom Flasher and Calypso. There are screaming yellow vans with flared fenders, air spoilers mounted on the roof; vans with Iron Cross-shaped rear accent windows; vans with personal messages on the sides or desert-cum-cowboy murals; vans pinstriped to the rain gutters: vans with tooled leather landau tops, carved redwood bumpers and mag wheels; vans in every color of the rainbow.

Kids park, open the doors and show off the elaborate interiors. There is everything from family-room Spanish to Playboy shag and suede. There is an Early American interior featuring a plastic-fieldstone hearth with electric logs, a maple couch covered in spread eagles and an authentic butter churn. There is Old West decor featuring flocked red wallpaper, banisters, a brass bedstead and spittoons—and a live potted fern. Van interiors often are of so many vibrant colors, clashing styles and schlock oddities that one thinks they must be playpens for Primal Scream therapy. Shag runs everywhere except over the speedometer, which is illegal. Each has the same basics—bed, refrigerator/icebox and quadraphonic stereo.

While the young men pop the tops off Coors cans, teen-age girls walk by as if furniture shopping, comparing interiors and angling for rides.

In contrast, up in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, senior citizens are folding up their aluminum chairs and climbing into vans for a game of two-handed canasta before folding down the sofa for the night. In increasing numbers, the van is replacing the trailer-camper and the mini-motor home as the recreational vehicle of modest-budget campers. Fitted with a shower, toilet, a bubble top for stand-up comfort, stove, icebox, double bed and comfortable, high-backed "captain's" chairs for driver and passenger, the van is uniquely suited to the needs and wallet of the weekender, the hunter, fisherman, motorcyclist and leisure buff.

In the late '50s the van became the vehicle of plumbers, dry cleaners and florists, replacing the panel truck. Then during the Woodstock years one began to see old Dodge vans loaded with amplifiers, rock groups, dogs and groupies, and one noticed the occasional van fitted with print curtains and roughed-in beds and chests.

But it was in Southern California that vans became vehicles to be taken seriously. On the dream coast, where it is not unusual to commute three or four hours a day to a job, and where recreational areas are hundreds of miles from home, vehicles are as important as houses, maybe more so. One's car or van reflects a personal choice, not a Detroit directive.

George Barris, 50, the elder statesman of car customizing, is happy to recount the history of the van. Sporting a bandito mustache, a modified electro-frizz Afro, a T shirt bearing his own likeness and an ad for his Hollywood "Motorama Cars of the Stars" museum, Barris speaks in the hushed tones of the founder of a mystical order. "It started with the surfers,"' he says. "They'd been using woodies to transport their surfboards to the beach. But that's all it was—transport. Then the kids lit on the idea of the van. It could hold as many surfboards as you wanted, and it had no windows in the back so there was privacy to change clothes and do, well, you know, whatever. But the main thing was that kids could stay at the beach in comfort. They like to surf about five in the morning when the waves are best, and the van was the answer.

"They quickly added stereo, carpeting, beds, iceboxes, the things that made them happy. And it wasn't long before they were enough of a force to create an 'after-market' of custom equipment and parts."

Like hot rods of old, vans became expressions of personality, the property of teen life. Social scientists would call them "peer pressure objects."

The van scene exploded out of the high school parking lot into the leisure world of spelunkers, rock hounds, scuba divers, boaters, sailplaners; soon all California was into vans. One reason for their popularity is obvious. There you are, several feet above traffic, with greater visibility than in a passenger car; you're able to spot traffic tie-ups, and safety is greatly increased. Vans give a feeling of control unmatched in anything except a Diamond-T cab-over tractor, and at one-fifth the price. In the driver's seat of a van you have a tendency to laugh at Jaguars and Lancias with their rack and pinion steering and tungsten anti-sway bars. You are in cosmic control, have a Hindu overview of life on wheels.

But the disadvantages of vanning can be enormous to the novice. As you gaze over the cars ahead of you, you suddenly realize that right at your back is a fair-sized room moving at 60 mph. It's scary until a driver masters the variety and complexity of side-mounted rearview mirrors. Parking is a sport all its own; and wind is a constant enemy because of the vehicle's high center of gravity. Low gas mileage and conversion costs are sad economic facts.

But George Barris, for one, doesn't see this last as a problem. "There are lots of people willing to spend $20,000 on a van and conversion," he says. "I've done one." Barris' $20,000 job is a bright yellow Dodge, so radically altered that few would recognize it as a van. The huge, gull-wing doors have been replaced by smoked picture windows. They can be raised to reveal an interior done in acrylic pink fuzz, a stereo, television set, a bar and an elaborate mini-chandelier. But one expects such tricks from Barris, who has just completed a Lincoln for heavyweight George Foreman—suede seats, Italian marble, mouton carpets and a gold "F" on one side—for a mere $30,000. Who said losers have to take the bus? "I'm about to start a van for Elton John," says Barris. What Barris and Elton John might do to a nice Ford Econoline 150 is beyond imagining.

There are two basic van conversions. The "surfer" concept is a self-contained vehicle good for transportation and maybe an overnight stay at the beach. The "camper" van is designed for extended camping and is popular with older people and serious outdoorsmen. The best way to get a surfer van is to buy a "bare" van from a dealer and move it around from one small custom shop to the next for interior woodwork, painting, windows, electronics, tires, etc. It is like passing through a cafeteria line with a tray.

The bare van is much less Spartan than in years past as Detroit adapts to the needs of the rising number of recreational vanners. Now one can be ordered from the factory with power steering and brakes, extra gas tanks for up to 40 gallons of fuel, full air conditioning, captain's chairs, quad stereo, single side doors (and rear ones on Dodges), a choice of four window configurations and towing options. The price ranges up to $6,000. Conversion can add another $5,000 to the bill.

But Detroit isn't worried about the price if the buyers aren't. Dodge is completing a plant in Windsor, Ontario that will crank out only vans—20 of them per hour. And this month Ford began production in its Dearborn, Mich. plant of factory-customized vans—500 carpeted and brilliantly painted vehicles will roll off the assembly line each month.

If you buy a bare van, however, and want to convert it to a camper you can take it to Karavan in Torrance, Calif. President Bud Blankenship, a portly, affable man, rules over one of the largest companies doing van conversions. His office is ringed by television monitors that show key points on his assembly line. Karavan's product is best known on the trailer-park and KOA circuits, though the company does surfer models as well. "We do about 3,000 conversions a year," he says, "and we'd double that if we could get more vans from the industry." Blankenship works on dealers' orders for fully converted vans. But you can take your own van to him.

The first thing he does is cut out the top to install a fiber-glass dome to provide head room for the occupants. Then come floors, vent windows, paneled walls, cabinetry, double bed and other luxury goodies. The average camper conversion at Karavan runs to $2,500. Because vans are considered dwellings, those registered in California must be inspected by the Housing Authority to see that they meet electrical and plumbing codes. "We also must varmint-proof the campers," says Blankenship.

An equipped mini-motor home such as a Winnebago goes for around $10,000, and customized vans are available well below that. "Those big RVs get about six to eight miles to the gallon," says Blankenship, "and vans are up to nine mpg at 8,500 GVW [gross vehicle weight], under city conditions [14 mpg is a more reasonable highway figure]. Another reason vans are outselling trailers and motor homes is because they double as a second car. A guy drives a van to work and back all week, giving his wife the car. On Friday the guy rolls out of the factory lot, picks up the wife and kids, gasses up, gets ice, and the family is off for the weekend. Lots of people keep bedding and clothes in their vans all the time. They're ready."

One of Blankenship's campers is more like a ship cabin than a vehicle. Couches turn into beds, turn into kitchen sinks, turn into dressing rooms, and on and on. A Castro Convertible nightmare to those who are not adept. "We're dealing here in millimeters," says Blankenship, "and unlike a boat builder, we can't extend a van by a foot if the stove won't fit. We have to deal with what Detroit gives us." The result is a van the size of a San Quentin isolation cell; perhaps a couple could camp in such a vehicle through a rainy weekend without shooting each other, but one doubts it.

Blankenship uses his personal camper van in more or less typical fashion. "I like to hunt in Arizona," he says. "So I put my motorcycle in it and go up in the mountains as far as possible. The van serves as a base camp. I go on with the bike until it's no longer able to handle the terrain, pitch a tent and continue on foot." Who'll be the first to conquer Everest in a van?

California motorcyclists figure a van can hold five people, three bikes, two beds, tools, spare parts and food and clothing enough to go to weekend motocross events in style and comfort. Rock hounds fit vans with big polishers and the other exotic tools of their hobby. Fishermen and sailors have been won over. "Just what I needed," said one vanner, putting his Hobie Cat into the water at the Huntington Beach public marina last month. "I can tow my boat and live in style while I'm here with the family. Before, I used a station wagon that barely held the sailbags. And it's a whole lot cheaper than a beach house at Malibu."

Real-estate agents have adapted nicely to the van, using them as on-site offices, fitted with desks, drinks and contract forms. The hesitant buyer is ushered in and makes his purchase without the long drive back to the office during which he might have second thoughts.

If you're young and a surfer, you can take your bare van to Van Nuys, to an alley among warehouses and machine shops, where a number of customizers do business. The alley is typical of the van underground spreading across the country. Here small companies try to scratch a living by selling van accessories and services. One, called World of Difference, is operated by Leon Killebrew and Tom Rich, who is known locally as the Michelangelo of van murals. Rock music blares through the shop and the smell of acrylics blends with that of sawdust. A former advertising illustrator, Rich offers scenes ranging from nudes to the kind of surfscapes sold in Honolulu tourist shops, only these are painted on the upper rear two-thirds of a van instead of on black velvet. "I've done 'Jaws' and motorcycle scenes," says Rich, "but most people seem to prefer the sea or the desert, places that suggest escape and privacy." Rich averages $65 per side for each mural.

In the same building as World of Difference, Craig Smith makes his living as a woodworker, producing interiors that challenge the imagination. He is working on a van called Calypso, a deep blue number with a nautical theme. It features a spoked, wooden ship's wheel, heavy mahogany paneling, a captain's bed, a bar made of rare woods and fitted with wide-bottomed crystal ship's decanters, and enough Pacific blue shag carpeting to make one head for the Dramamine. The vanners are keeping Burlington Mills in business. Smith's handiwork costs from $600 to $5,000. "A kid can't do much of this work," he says. "It's not like it was with hot rods. And it's beyond the skills of the average home builder. The interior of a van is a series of reverse curves, and the wiring is complex, with airline lights, running lights and stereos. So you almost have to go to a specialty shop."

Even in the bizarre world of the custom van, some requests are all but impossible to fulfill. Smith recalls one for a light show—"You know, light panels hooked up to the stereo to provide pulsing patterns with the music. That's not unusual, but this kid wanted 5,000 separate bulbs in the van. I told him he'd better go to ITT."

One of the staples of hip life, the water bed, has proved completely unsuitable for vans. "One sharp curve with 80 gallons of water sloshing around back there and you'd turn turtle right away," says a customizer.

Today's vanners care little about power; they are satisfied with the 351 V-8s that are standard Detroit issue. It is as if they have turned from being engineers and mechanics, which they were in the hot-rod era, to being artists and decorators, competing with wild ideas instead of in street races. On a calm day, the gas pedal pressed to the floor, a van may do 80 mph. Not coincidentally, the insurance rate for under-25 kids is much lower for a van than for a deep-breathing GTO.

Van organizations have sprung up throughout the Southwest and are gaining strength elsewhere; there are 25 magazines devoted exclusively to vans and at least one newspaper. Van events, called burn-outs, pushes or Van-Gos, are attracting thousands. These events are only nominally competitive, centering around admiring vehicles, picnics, sack races and tugs-of-war.

What the advent of the van seems to represent is a new kind of freedom. Getting there is most of the fun, never mind the destination. One can be almost constantly in motion. The kids play behind the driver's seat while you're going 55 mph; you can brew a cup of tea, listen to stereo, sack out, take a shower or watch television en route. We may end up a nation of nomads, as the kids have been predicting, wandering like Indians following the sun.

It is Friday afternoon and you are headed east out of L.A. on a freeway. Another van is beside you, a deep purple job called Lazarus, fitted with casket hardware and the black crushed-silk interior of a coffin. The driver's headphones are plugged into a roof-mounted jack. His shoulder-length hair blows straight back in the wind, a quadraphonic loon, surely, on a macabre and secret mission. On the other side of your vehicle is a camper van in which an elderly woman in a gaucho blouse sits at a formica table, watching soaps on television and eating Fritos.

Where are we headed? And does it matter, as long as we're doing it in style and comfort? The old woman scowls from her picture window as she spies Lazarus. Her wrinkled face looks like a road map for vanners, on which you can't read the names of towns or highways or mountains. It doesn't matter as long as we're under way in a van.

FIVE PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEInside and out, vans reflect their owners' yearnings. Customizers like Craig Smith (top, with Chuck Wilkie) whip up nautical interiors that, like desert murals, appeal to escapists. ILLUSTRATIONMurals painted by Leon Killebrew (left) and Tom Rich cost $65 a side.